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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (June 30, 2003)

Beckham Mania Boosts Japan-Korea Relations

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

The afterglow created by Japan and Korea's highly successful joint-hosting of the 2002 Soccer World Cup has yet to fade. The event generated an immense quantity of national pride in both countries and most significantly improved the level of mutual understanding between the peoples of the two nations. The recent arrival in Japan of one of the tournament's heroes, Britain's David Beckham, spectacularly reignited the latent World Cup fever that had been quietly smoldering under the surface for the past year. This reawakening also highlighted the impressive new level of good relations between the ordinary citizens of Japan and Korea.

Beckham's second coming to Japan was an over-the-top media frenzy that whipped up a state of national excitement bordering on hysteria Armies of young people chanting a mantra of "Beckham! Beckham! Beckham!" swamped the vicinity of his every appearance and the media gave near saturation coverage to the visit. In fact, one got the impression that if the position of Japanese Emperor ever became an elected office, then the British soccer star would probably be the candidate to beat. Because of his many lucrative advertising contracts, Beckham, like Orwell's Big Brother, can be seen everywhere. From TV commercials to giant chocolate statues, his benign face beams out like that of a sacred icon. This phenomenon has sustained the power of Beckham-mania and his huge legions of followers have lost none of their fervor. His trip was the media event of the month.

In several of his interviews, Beckham praised both Japan and Korea for staging such a fantastic World Cup. These highly publicized comments have turned out to be perhaps the most beneficial media boost for Japan-Korea ties since the soccer tournament itself. They reminded Japan of what a great achievement the two nations had accomplished together and how much closer they had become on a people-to-people level. Beckham's words gave the media an excellent opportunity to produce a whole series of facts, figures and reportage on improved Korean relations.

For example, large numbers of Japanese started studying Korean after the World Cup with a fifty percent rise in 2002 in the number of people taking the Korean language proficiency examinations. A record 1.27 million South Koreans visited Japan in 2002, a 12% rise on 2001. South Koreas are now Japan's number one tourists. Furthermore, retailers report increased sales of Korean foods and goods during 2002.

Away from the national statistics, ordinary Japanese citizens seem to have warmed to South Koreans because of the World Cup. I conducted an opinion and interview survey in January at three different Japanese universities and the student responses were overwhelmingly positive. As surprising as it seems, the World Cup appears to have helped many students "discover" South Korea. One student summed up the situation, "Because of the World Cup, now I know South Korea is there." Various national surveys of all age groups have shown a greatly improved impression of South Korea following the World Cup. New and increased air-links between the two countries are further improving exchanges.

Better understanding between ordinary Japanese and Koreans is an essential element that is positively changing the dynamics of the old tense relationship between the two. As the statistics clearly show, the World Cup gave people-contacts an amazing uplift. This is certainly something that is needed to counter negative feelings generated by a small band of prominent Japanese politicians who are addicted to making nationalistic remarks tailor-made to offend Koreans. The most recent example of this long and sad tradition occurred at the beginning of June when Taro Aso, policy chief of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said the 1939 colonial decree forcing Korean people to adopt Japanese names "stemmed from Korean requests for surnames." The good will created by the World Cup has lessened the impact of such insensitive comments and put intense pressure on politicians not to make them.

Unwittingly, the mad media circus surrounding the Beckham visit has reminded the nation of how ties with Korea have greatly improved. Perhaps this unintentional achievement even justifies the vast summons of money Japanese sponsors pay the British player. Whatever the case, Japanese attitudes towards Korea have greatly improved in the last year. When the history of Japanese-Korean relations is written a century from now, jointly staging the World Cup will be seen as key turning point. I wonder if anyone will still remember David Beckham?

A different version of this article has appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Related GLOCOM Articles

Japanese Student Opinion About Korea: England-Ireland Comparison
J. Sean Curtin, Opinions, GLOCOM Platform, 8 July 2002

Japan-Korea Relations After the World Cup
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 29 July 2002

World Cup Legacy For Japan
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 19 June 2002

World Cup and Japanese Society
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 17 June 2002

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